Category Archives: Alpaca Hand-spun

Blu Oat Yarn and Grandpa’s chair

bluoatwheelI’ve been spinning some yarn for my daughter, who loves to knit. And having been separated from the wheel for the better part of a year, it feels good to be back at it. My parents gifted me an old rocking chair that my great grandfather had made long ago. He was so proud of his chair and the work yarnhe put into it, from turning each spindle, to the engraving, to the sewing of the cushion (yes, my great grandfather was the seamstress in our family).

The thing about the chair is that it sits low, which I find quite comfortable. Moreover, it’s at exactly the right elevation for the wheel, making it ideal for long hours spinning. And it’s something to think about- the process of making a chair and how similar that is to the process of making yarn; how one cradles the other. That point is not lost on me.

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The felted, matted mess

imageLast year, I purchased a beautiful Suri alpaca rose-grey fleece from a local farmer. It was the most beautiful natural colorway I had ever seen in a fleece, with hints of autumn-rose and oatmeals and grey. I handled the fleece with extra care, checking the temperature of the wash and rinse water carefully, handling it gently, quietly contemplating at each phase of the wash-rinse cycle all that might be made from these gorgeous fibers. And then I did something stupid.

I don’t like that word stupid, but it’s the word that really works here. Fiber demands its process. You can’t rush fiber. You can’t tell it to hurry up and dry or get clean. You can’t shear an alpaca and make socks within the next five minutes. If you could, we crazy fiber nuts would find something else to fawn over.

Eager to begin carding, I decided to place the washed fleece in a pillow case and put it on air dry in the dryer for a good 15 minutes. This is something I had done with other fleeces and without issue, but I did not check the air temperature in my eagerness to dry the fleece. Anyone who works with fiber knows the most fundamental of rules:

Heat + agitation = felt.

By the time I realized my error, I lifted a matted piece of felt the size of a corgi out of the dryer. And yes, there were real tears.

I tried in vain to make something useful from the felted monstrosity. I even hung on to the fiber for months, hoping I would come up with something useful to somehow make up for the error. But what I realized was that this felt was destined to compost, as beautiful as it was. And that I had learned a lesson worth 10 times the price of the fleece; that process is important and, in instances like this, vital.

It’s so easy to try to take the short-cut, or to give up when someone tries to throw a wrench in your plans, but when you look at life as a process of growing, of moving from this raw, dirty fleece to a clean, organized useful yarn, it’s easier to see that those little bumps in the road aren’t there to deter you, but to help you broaden your awareness.

There’s a reason Gandhi was so wise; he was a hand-spinner! 🙂

Things to do when not farming…

The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of

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Identifying cool mushrooms…

June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:

  • Tend to the travelling orchard
  • Improve spinning technique
  • Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
  • Experiment with natural dyes
  • Learn about medicinal herbs
  • Practice grafting techniques
  • Volunteer at school or public garden
  • Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
  • Learn old-fashioned candy-making
  • Focus on food preservation techniques:
    • Pressure canning
    • Smoking meats
    • Drying
    • Fermentation
  • Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
  • Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
  • Explore niche or value added markets
  • Take a botany class
  • Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
  • Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
  • Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
  • Re-read Edible Forest Gardens

The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!

Tender leanings

On the way out to NY last week, I stopped near Port Huron for coffee before the trek through Canada. At the counter of a Tim Horton’s (that’s right, because, well, Canada), a young man behind the counter asked about my scarf.

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The scarf is a beautifully knitted infinity scarf made by my mother-in-law, with our fiber. And amid this industry-hardened region of the thumb, an 18-year-old boy who has never seen an alpaca, leaned forward over the counter and said, “Your scarf looks so soft.”

“Do you want to touch it?”

“May I?”

Now, normally, this might feel awkward, leaning forward toward a total stranger in the middle of a chain restaurant, so that he can feel my scarf, but something told me this kid was genuinely interested in fiber.

As his thumb ran across the corded alpaca and his eyes met mine with a sparkle.

photo (2)“Is an alpaca like a llama?” The questions began. And before long, we were talking about the process of taking fiber and turning it into scarves. Leaving, I ran my own fingers across the soft fibers and thought about the process. And how the process is an ongoing story. And how that story impacts more than just the animal or the farmer. It’s the connections between, whether the winding off of the skein by the hand-spinner, or the carefully knitted scarf by the knitter, or the person inspired by the tactile beauty of the finished scarf, this process inspires conversation.

And hopefully, for at least one person in southern Michigan, it inspires something more. An opportunity to explore a world he may not have known existed. For this gal, from a tiny town in northern Michigan, it afforded a similar impact. This whole journey forward is about exploration, adventure, and expanding our world.

Special thanks to Cindy Graves for the lovely scarf!

A day in the life…

We are a family of six. That translates to two kids per parent. Factor in a dog, cat, and four alpacas, and meal planning/preparation, and you can see how a day goes by very quickly for our household. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love farming, but this kind of farming is unique for us. We do not live at the property and without electricity and running water, we have to make daily trips hauling materials in during the winter months over-top heavy snowfall and no matter the weather, and as often as two to three times daily.

photo 1Water is carried in three-gallon drums. We fill it at home and carry the water uphill through the snow because there is no way for our car to traverse the drive this time of the year. It’s good cardio, but not half as good as the 50lb bags of pellets or the even heavier dense hay we carry bale by bale.

A hay shortage this year meant we could not stock up as we had done previously, but thankfully we found a really good supplier just 12 miles from the farm. Today, we’ll haul in another load, bale by bale, through the snow, uphill the whole way. I’m just grateful it’s good grass hay (harder to find with such high demand fphoto 3or alfalfa mixed bales in our area).

Yesterday, was a straw day. We stack two bales on the Prius roof once a week for bedding. The straw is light and not as difficult to maneuver, but takes time, like anything, when traversing heavy snow.

The daily tasks at the farm include the removal of the evening dung-pile (it’s amazing what an alpaca bottom can produce in a day), watering of the animals, a daily ration of pellets (a treat and supplement), hay feed, and feeding the cat, who has taken up residence with the alpacas. They form a harmonious grouping. Cats and alpacas pair well together and the cat keeps the mice away from the feed and I often find the cat and the alpacas nestled together in the deep straw bedding.

Next comes the dumping of the collected dung outside of the barn, then a walk around the perimeter to ensure the fence is in good order. Usually a few nuzzles and snuggles are exchanged and that concludes the first round.

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Another aspect of having alpacas is the grooming. We do not groom their fiber, but we do keep their nails clipped, which is not a very pleasant process for the farmer, unaccustomed to wrestling a 200-lb animal during its routine foot-care.

This summer, I learned to administer both IM and SQ injections for vitamins and vaccines. Also not my favorite task, but part of the routine care of the animals. There’s the shearing, but that’s a biennial event for Suris, and thankfully one we can hire out (though we successfully sheared two on our own – I may be slightly stretching the use of the word “successful” in this instance).

Farming is not for the faint of heart. And farming in this fashion is reminiscent of something older. At times I am working in complete darkness, by feel, and other times I find myself breathing standing before the large looming barn with the feeling time has stopped in this place altogether. It’s a peaceful feeling and I am grateful this special place has been preserved for many future generations to experience and enjoy.

Feeling Fibre

photoThe fiber is packed away, my spinning wheel is safely stowed, and I was feeling confident I could let my little hobby go for the winter ahead, but there’s something about the tactile sensation of fiber and the art of spinning that pulls at a girl. So, I gave in and bought some roving and started spinning with the drop spindle. Certainly, this is one of the very best things about the drop spindle – its portability.

So, while I won’t be spinning yarn for sale for a bit, at least I can revel in the sanctuary of the art, gain some more confidence, and hopefully come out a better spinner this spring.